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The Nation

Town's Church Poisoning Leads to Soul-Searching

A close-knit community in Maine reels from a murder and the suicide of the prime suspect.

May 19, 2003|Stephen Braun | Times Staff Writer

NEW SWEDEN, Maine — When it came time to bid farewell to Danny Bondeson, his family and friends filled the pews inside Gustaf Adolph Lutheran Church, spilling out of the chapel's sanctuary. For a brief hour, they remembered him as the unassuming, dutiful farmhand they had grown up with -- not the murder suspect he had inexplicably become.

Even in May, the ice-choked soil of northern Maine is still too frozen to allow burial. So the Bondesons opted for cremation. Then they joined 150 people inside the same church where 16 congregants were stricken three weeks ago in a mysterious mass poisoning case that left one man dead and was capped by Bondeson's baffling suicide.

In this expanse of potato fields and pines near the Canadian border, a community where murders are as rare as traffic jams and old-line Swedish families can recite one another's lineage going back generations, the notion that a native son might have plotted lethal harm defies comprehension.

Maine State Police detectives and FBI behavioral profilers have struggled to solve the case, hinting that old grudges within the tiny congregation of the town's sole Lutheran church led Bondeson and perhaps others to target fellow worshippers for murder.

The townspeople of tiny New Sweden say that even if Danny Bondeson killed, he will always be family.

"You live with a man 53 years, you get to know him inside and out," said Sara Anderson, who runs one of New Sweden's two roadside stores. "It just isn't like Danny. Could he have done this by himself? Was he put up to it? All we know is something happened at our church and we need answers."

Anderson was among the mourners who streamed into Gustaf Adolph last week to celebrate the Danny Bondeson they preferred to recall -- a quiet man who "couldn't hurt a soul." Sitting in the crowd were several recuperating poisoning victims.

"We all feel for his family," Anderson said. "And we're all going to miss him."

The search for New Sweden's killer has proceeded like an Agatha Christie mystery directed by Ingmar Bergman, set against the bleak landscape of Aroostook County, a vast tract of forests and farmland that stretches hundreds of miles toward Quebec. New Sweden is one of four postage-stamp towns in a section known as the Swedish Colony, settled by immigrant families in the 1870s. Barely 600 people live in New Sweden now, still prizing their isolation from urban America and their dependence on one another.

Those ties were sundered, police say, when someone intentionally dumped a concentrated dose of arsenic into a coffee urn stored in the church's kitchen. Many of the 16 parishioners overcome after services April 27 are still recovering; several remain hospitalized. Retired railroad electrician Walter Reid Morrill, 78, died of cardiac arrest, weakened by the poison. Among several of the sickened survivors were Bondeson's closest friends.

Five days later, troopers summoned to an old house on a backwoods lane found the 53-year-old Bondeson dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Nearby, they found a note "strongly" linking him to the crimes, said State Police Lt. Dennis Appleton, who heads the murder investigation.

Since Bondeson's suicide May 1, detectives turned up hints of schisms within New Sweden's churchgoers. Left leaderless after its pastor departed two years ago, Gustaf Adolph's shrinking congregation was divided over its future and perhaps, police said, by personal grudges. Most of his investigators, Appleton said, are convinced Bondeson did not act alone. But they still have scant evidence supporting the possibility of accomplices.

"We're not ready to close this just because Daniel Bondeson took his own life," Appleton said. "We're trying to rule in or out whether more than one person was involved. We'd like to be comfortable with our final decision."

There has been precious little comfort in New Sweden since the Sunday morning last month when the faithful gathered in Gustaf Adolph's weather-beaten yellow chapel. After services, they drifted over to the church hall. There was coffee for the adults, punch for the children and sweets left over from a bake sale the day before.

"People around here take their coffee straight," said the Rev. James Morgan, pastor at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in nearby Stockholm. Their conversations often turned to the weather and the land, to gossip and plans for a summer solstice celebration.

"Nothing earth-shaking, just the usual things you'd hear at a country church," said Morgan, who often filled in at Gustaf Adolph. He was away that Sunday, leaving a congregation member to minister to the flock.

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